It’s time for some back-to-school shopping of a different kind.
When you go down the aisles of your local school district these days, you may notice that the price for taking part in fall sports at the high school has gone up, or that the middle school has added fees for athletics and other extracurricular activities.
School fees have been going up in recent years as districts across the state try to manage budgets amid shrinking resources, economic uncertainty, and an aversion to raising property taxes. Forty of 47 public high schools in area communities charge athletic user fees, according to a Globe survey, and 13 charge activity fees.
But there are signs that some communities have had enough.
Newton aldermen called for a policy review this spring after new school fees were imposed for clubs, drama, and other extracurricular activities. The Belmont school district has commissioned a task force to examine its fee structure. Arlington boosted its fees in 2010, only to scale them back under parental pressure last year.
And a $50 activity fee imposed this spring on all students at Algonquin Regional High, whether or not they participate in activities, stirred an outcry from parents in Northborough and Southborough.
“It bothers me that we’re shifting away from the model of a community supporting a school,” said Susan Dargan, chairwoman of the Algonquin Regional School Committee, when the fee was passed. “It’s placing more of a burden on families.”
Belmont charges fees of $450 for the first sport a student plays at the high school, $250 for participating in the high school music program, and $275 for the high school fine arts program. Belmont also charges a $575 transportation fee for those students not legally entitled to ride the bus.
“We’ll be looking at our entire fee structure, including what kind of fees we should have and their fairness,” said the district’s superintendent, Thomas Kingston.
Kingston said the issue concerns him because of the importance of athletics and other extracurricular activities.
“We are concerned and should be concerned about the entire academic experience, including what type of enrichment opportunities we offer outside the classroom,” he said.
Belmont’s fee situation, he said, evolved from a combination of economic factors, including the large number of sports being offered, improved opportunities for female athletes since the advent of Title IX, and the number of sports introduced in recent years.
“Who knew about lacrosse 20 years ago?” Kingston asked.
He said the district’s budget gets squeezed when students and parents request new programs, and yet spending must still stay within the confines of Proposition 2½’s limits on raising property taxes.
Faced with a $4 million budget gap for last school year, the Newton School Committee approved a series of new and increased fees aimed at raising an additional $1 million. For the first time, fees were imposed on extracurricular activities such as clubs, drama, and music ensembles. Sports fees also went up.
However, only about $2.3 million was collected in fees for the 2011-2012 school year, instead of the projected $2.7 million, according to a report filed with the superintendent in July. Only 15 percent of the projected number of high school students paid the activity fee, and about 60 percent of the projected number of students paid the middle school fee, causing the shortfall.
Newton’s fees will remain the same this fall, but some officials say the issue should be revisited.
“Philosophically, over time I’d like to see us decrease our reliance on them,” said School Committee member Steven Siegel, though he acknowledged that the budget is tight. He said he believes the city is now charging for things that are part of the core academic mission, such as the fourth-grade instrumental music program.
“We’re charging a fee for something that’s happening during the school day,” he said.
Alderwoman Amy Sangiolo said the Board of Aldermen’s resolution in June calling for a review of the school fee structure shows there is some discontent with the present policy.
“We’re educating the whole child, and there are basic skills to be learned in other activities such as sports, health and wellness, and music,” she said. “They’re considered luxuries, and they’re not.”
Sangiolo said fees can reduce the accessibility of school sports and activities.
“Like it or not, there’s still a stigma involved in asking for financial assistance,” she said. “I’m not suggesting the schools aren’t sensitive or don’t sympathize with parents struggling to pay fees. But I know children who won’t ask their parents to pay the fees.”Continued...